I didn’t support Barack Obama because of his race. I didn’t need to: I just thought he was the best candidate by far, mostly for wonky reasons. (I started down the road to supporting Obama when I read this sentence from a Washington Monthly article: “On the campaign trail in 2004, Obama spoke passionately about the dangers of loose nukes and the legacy of the Nunn-Lugar nonproliferation program, a framework created by a 1991 law to provide the former Soviet republics assistance in securing and deactivating nuclear weapons.”)
However: having myself been, on occasion, the first woman in various environments, I know how much it matters for people to come to terms with the idea that having a woman, or an African-American, in some job is just plain normal. I’ve spent a fair amount of time convincing some co-workers (none at my present place of employment) that I was not, in fact, literally their mothers, or any of the other peculiar things they thought a female colleague might turn out to be. That never bothered me: life has generally been good to me, and this minor annoyance seemed like a very small price to pay. However, it did give me a vivid appreciation of why it matters that women and people of color actually occupy various jobs: so that other people can get used to the idea that they are just normal, and realize, without any particular fanfare, that their worst fears about what having (say) a female colleague might be like are groundless.
For that reason, I would have voted for an African-American, or for a woman, over a more or less comparable white man. I truly want to get to the point at which it is completely normal for people of all races and genders to run for President, and this seems to me to be a good way to do it, at least when two candidates are relatively evenly matched. I didn’t have to make this choice in this election: for one thing, neither Obama nor Clinton is a white man, and for another, I didn’t see the choice between them as close enough. But had things been different, I would have.
That said, though, I don’t think I really appreciated, on a visceral level, exactly how much this would mean to African-Americans until sometime around November. At that time, Obama was trailing Clinton by around 20 points among black voters, which I found odd, until I read some article — I can’t recall which — with a number of interviews of black Democrats. Those interviews made it clear that most of the people quoted in the article did not believe that a black candidate — any black candidate — could win the nomination, let alone the Presidency. Once I had noticed that, I seemed to hear it a lot: just a few days ago, I was listening to CSPAN in the car, and a black voter called in and said that until Iowa, he had assumed that Obama was “some kind of stunt”.
I suppose I live a sheltered life, but for some reason it hadn’t crossed my mind that many African-Americans would think not just that it was very hard for a black man to win the nomination, but that it was impossible. But once it did, I found it horrible and heartbreaking, all the more so because, on reflection, I thought it was a perfectly reasonable thing to think. (At least in its milder form — ‘he can’t win’ — as opposed to the more ominous ‘they won’t let him win.’)
I thought: it is awful that people should think that no one who looks like them could possibly be nominated by a major party; that any candidate who looks like them has to be “some kind of stunt”; that if they tell their children that maybe they’ll grow up to be President some day, they believe, in their heart of hearts, that they are lying. That should never, ever be true. Not in our country.
When Barack Obama won Iowa, the ground beneath that fear began to crack. Now it has been blown apart, in the only way it could have been. And whatever any of us think about this race, or Senator Obama, that is cause for celebration; as is the fact that it turned out not to be true.